Monday, March 18, 2013

Epic Bird Day: Patagonia

Last weekend my wife worked a double on Saturday, and all bird nerds know what it means when one's spouse or significant other is working on a weekend. It means Epic Birding Day! It was time to saddle up and get down to southeast Arizona for a rigorous day of indulgent bird-seeking. With it being early and unseasonably warm in March, expectations were high both for seeing lots of the southeastern residents and also for seeing some migrant birds that would be new for the year. I'll admit, I had the faintest optimism of seeing some Evening Grosbeaks that had been reported in Tubac two days prior.

So, heading south down the I-19 from the I-10, I first stopped at the De Anza trail in Tubac, and hiked along to Santa Gertrudis Lane. As expected, the Evening Grosbeaks were long gone, but there were still some great birds out in the early morning haze, including a new one for the 2013 birding year.

Woodpeckers were the first to great the timid sun. They were impatient and it took its sweet time in rising. When it was finally up, it had delayed long enough to let the clouds come in and dim the sky. There is an uncanny correlation between visiting great birding spots and getting overcast weather...
Anyway, the first minutes of clear skies were a head-banger's dream as Northern Flickers (3 above), Ladderbacks, and Gila Woodpeckers went to work in the mixed woodlands. They had Cottonwoods and mesquites to choose from. The Flickers liked the taller cottonwoods, while the Gilas stuck to the mesquite, and were thus, oddly, more photogenic.

Apart from some skulking Song and Lincoln's, it was a relatively sparrow-less dawn, but from ground level to mid level, my attention was enraptured by this mid-molt Vermillion Flycatcher. This poor fellow was at that awkward stage experienced by many the college freshman, when they molt into their mature adult beardage to show they're ready to breed.Yes, he's sporting the equivalent of the scraggily freshmen-year facial hair, and like the freshmen he won't be attracting many mature ladies this year, no matter how loud or obnoxiously he behaves. Hang in there bro; soon you'll be one in a vermillion.

The self-conscious Vermillion was hanging out along a little stream, and while trying to get different angled shots of the awkward Flycatcher, I noticed the silhouette of what appeared to be an inordinately large Say's Phoebe. After a minute the bird flew lower down into the tree where the back-lighting wasn't so debilitating, and revealed itself to be a first-of-the-year Cassin's Kingbird. Hazy photo, branches in the way...this guy must've been hanging out with Bigfoot this winter. 

There were plenty of Towhees and Cardinals, along with gangs of House and Bewick's Wrens, all rustling around the hedges of Santa Gertrudis Lane, whose large pyracantha bushes supported the Grosbeaks a couple of days before. It's hardly a consolation prize but hey, without Abert's Towhees doing their thing, scientists estimate that we'd all be living up to our waists in leaf litter, bugs, and old seeds. Abert's Towhee: the unsung custodian of the forest floor.

The De Anza trail was a very pleasant walk, but it was just an appetizer for the birding feast to come.This time around the main objective was Flycatchers. Patagonia provides the very similar Gray, Dusky, and Hammonds Flycatchers all within close distance of each other, and I was greatly wanting more time to study the Gray's and Duskies in addition to obtaining better photos of these two species.

In my experiences, the Gray Flycatcher is the most common/visible of the three. It perches and hunts from mid-level in the trees around Patagonia Lake (and anywhere it lives). There are some subtle variations that helps to separate this bird from the similar Duskies and Hammonds--short primary projections, non-contrasting wing-bar and tertial coloration and more of a gray band across the forehead--but for my money the easiest way (and hopefully still a consistent way) is by taking a look at the beak. This guy's beak is very long, in proportion to his head.

By contrast, this Dusky Flycatcher, which also tends to prefer lower, brushier habitat, has a stubby beak. The Hammond's has a stubby beak as well, but they tend to prefer taller trees and higher perches (this bird was foraging and photographed just a couple of feet off the ground, an elevation at which it stayed for the duration of my fifteen minute observation). Of the three birds, the Dusky has the most noticeable contrast between the head and back, and Hammond's has the longest primary projections, long like this fellow here.


Truth be told, the primary-projection business if iffy for me, as can be obscured by the bird's posture and movements. It seems like the odds are better for getting a good look at the beak length, but maybe others would care to weigh in on this observation. At any rate, I can't say I'm a glutton for punishment, but I do have a certain proclivity towards tormenting myself in the pursuit of these empidomax.
*The more-informed opinion on this bird is that it is, indeed, a Hammond's (Cheers Seagull Steve), so ignore everything I said.

Rooting around the narrow paths on Patagonia's east side, near Sonoita Creek, will turn up the vast majority of Patagonia's species, both in mixed flocks and as individuals. Common Ground Doves often travel in little bands but this solitary bird was the only one I saw. 

Commonly grounded, this Dove seldom gets to hang out with its friends on the weekend.

A conspicuous Canyon Towhee was trying to fit in with an un-abiding group of Abert's Towhees around the same area. It was surprising to see a Canyon Towhee near the comparatively lush, green undergrowth around Sonoita creek, especially as I did not see any when hiking around the move arid, elevated north side of the lake--the kind of terrain they usually prefer. Towhees are such butts to photograph, and the thickening clouds didn't help the situation. All the same, it's still satisfying to find something unexpected, even if it's not rare.

Despite being expected, common, and easily seen, the Bridled Titmouse is still a delightful bird. Chinstrap Beard Titmouse is a less eloquent name for this bird, but it would also be fitting. As far as black, white, and gray birds go (there are more than a few), these are one of the most stylish.

After several hours of rummaging around the bird-rich Sonoita Creek area, I finally resolved that the Trogon was a no-show for the day and decided to continue hiking around the lake (I hate to admit it, but it felt good to later read that nobody found the bird that day. Although I am sorry for others who spent time and money chasing it, I feel less incompetent now). For the most part, it seems like birders concentrate their efforts on the south shore and Sonoita Creek parts of the lake, ultimately with good reason. The south shore also has elevated desert chaparral frequented by Rufous variety Sparrows and other arid dwellers, so in terms of specialization there is no reason for the long walk around the lake.

Nonetheless, I set off, mostly just to content myself that I would have hiked all around the lake. The clouds continued to thicken, the bird numbers dropped off, and with each passing minute of the dreary afternoon the decision felt more and more rash. But while walking and musing along the northern shore, a delightful ball of saturated, sweet-ing yellow caught the eye. In the gloomy lighting and under gloomy skies, this first-of-year Yellow Warbler looked positively radiant. It also looked out of place.

He is likely wondering why he is so exposed, why this sycamore tree yet has no leaves.

Another conspicuous, first-of-year bird I found on the way back to the car was this resplendent male Broad-billed hummingbird. Even more exciting, I actually had an opportunity to view the impressive breadth of its bill. It's very bride.

For sooth, it's unfair how colorful this bird is. Luckily for birders, nature isn't always fair.

Speaking of unfairly colored birds, I swung by Fort Lowell Park in Tucson on the way back to Phoenix in the hopes of seeing a reported Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. I had some brief looks at the bird while it was high in a eucalyptus tree, but the real attention grabber, in addition to some people trying to have a wedding in the windy, rainy, chilly weather, was a brazen Vermilion Flycatcher. There were half a dozen such Flycatchers around Patagonia Lake, but they were all much more shy. He must have known that the lighting was too poor to get proper feather detail, and that his colors would be almost disgustingly saturdated. He definitely knew. Nature isn't fair.

It was an epic day of birding, and not just in the over-used, relatively meaningless sense of the word as it is employed today. In about nine hours of birding I saw around eighty species, a half-dozen of which were new for the year, hiked around Patagonia Lake, and found perhaps the world's cutest Muscovy duck. This bird is not countable to any ABA lists in Arizona, but seriously, I challenge anyone to find a cuter version of this normally disgusting bird.

If one has to pick just one site to plunk down and explore for eight hours, Patagonia is among the best in the state, though it is at its zenith a bit later in the spring. Patagonia is famous for its birding diversity and also because it has hosted an early Male Trogon along the Sonoita Creek wash for the last ten or so years. This secretive but reliable bird has been attracting people past the $10 per-vehicle charge for years now, though I have never seen it is this area.

It was a great trip, and best of all, I'll be back soon for the Trogon and some Black-capped Gnatcatchers, and I will be back with back-up, big back-up!


  1. woohoo! congrats laurence. great post. Makes me want to tag along with you again soon.

    1. Hey Joe,

      Thanks for swinging by the blog. I'll be heading to some sites along the Salt River on Thursday and meeting up with a couple Catholic priests (for birding). Let me know if you'd like to join.

  2. Some major crushes here Laurence, well played. I would venture to say that Empid is indeed a Hammond's; the tiny bill and fantastic primary projection have me sold. I agree on breeding grounds HAFL and DUFL are found at different levels of the canopy (and often in different habitats), but they seem more generalist during migration.

    1. Curses...

      I guess I wasn't thinking in terms of breeding vs. migration habitat. This bird's long primaries had me continually second-guessing, but the habitat was nothing like what Sibley's described for Hammond's. What's also odd is that the first time I had Hammond down there, in almost the same spot and with the same sort of habitat, it was in mid-February, which I would've assumed was before migration.

      The great tragedy here is that this means I still have no photo of a Dusky. You always bring me such good news Seagull...As you say, life is pain.

    2. Ah yes, it was probably a wintering bird...I believe both Dusky and Hammond's overwinter in the Patagonia area (eBird has plenty of sightings of both species during the winter months).

      HAFL vs. DUFL is one of the tougher ID problems in the west. When I was point counting in SE AZ it was a continuous struggle to get a solid ID on silent birds.

  3. Epic days can be epic. Yours certainly seems fit criteria. 80 species is impressive. We only got 39 in Warren over 8.5 hours mind you. Couldn't even get a respectable 40.

    1. Nah, getting 39 just shows y'all are too classy to splurge into excess. Out west, oh we're very self-indulgent, not austere at all with birding. Good on ya!

      Thanks for swinging by worthy birder.

  4. Some great birds! Looks like you had an awesome day!

  5. Flycatcher Laurence! Aren't you glad Seagull is around to crush all of our empid dreams? Sigh... Thank you for this pile of photos that make me want to catch the next flight to Patagonia... Such good birds and awesome photos too. Well, not the kingbird so much... but most of em! That Bridled Titmouse is damn sexy.

    1. It's in the nature of Seagulls to be bullies Jen.
      I should warn you. I was back at Patagonia today, and in terms of your desire to get back down there, well, things are going to get much, much worse. I found my best buddy again, among other highlights.

  6. Just great introductions and pics. Thanks!

  7. Awesome birding there Laurence. You are one in ver-million!

    1. Ah shucks're making me blush all vermiliony.

  8. Laurence, that was quite a trip! Chris read me this story while I was driving but it is nice to finally see the pictures that go with it! What a wonderful day! I'm glad you eventually got the Trogon! I have not been back here..yet! I hope to go soon! I love this place, but I have never seen the Trogon here. Great pics and wit as always!

    1. It was exhausting!

      Patagonia is such a great area; it really is. That Trogon will be around, best of luck there!
      Now if I could only catch a break with those Owls...